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In the fight for racial equality, theater is one step behind

By Jonathan Edmondson

A few months ago, the Broadway world exploded with chatter about changes coming to “The Phantom of the Opera,” the Great White Way’s longest running musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show, which has been running since 1988, rarely garners headlines anymore. However, the announcement of theater veteran Norman Lewis taking over the role of the Phantom made critics and fans alike take notice.

Lewis was making history – after running for 26 years, there was about to be the first African-American Phantom.

This casting notice served as a catalyst for a larger conversation. Articles about racial diversity in theater began popping up and message boards erupted with talk of other unique casting choices.

In a 2013 article on thestage.com, Richard Jordan reported that minorities represented only 20% of Broadway casts. Jordan, a theater journalist, believes this is mostly due to issues in authenticity. A majority of shows traditionally feature a predominantly white cast, and revivals are not much different. Directors and producers are sticking to conventional casting methods in order to bring in a continued revenue and not differ from patterns that have worked for decades.

This accepted practice, however, has led to frustration among many actors from diverse background. They struggle to find success in roles that are traditionally played by Caucasian men and women.

While this has earned increasing attention on Broadway, color blind and nontraditional casting is not typical even in regional and high school levels.

Kenneth Abes, a twenty-year-old junior at The College of New Jersey, is currently playing the role of Roger Davis in Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning rock-musical “Rent.”

During a recent rehearsal Abes belted out Roger’s solo number “One Song Glory” with a quivering vibrato. His rock tone is reminiscent of past actors who have played the role, including Adam Pascal and Will Chase.

The only difference is that Chase and Pascal were white – Abes is Filipino-American.

“I grew up thinking that certain roles could only be played by white people,” Abes explained during a post-rehearsal interview.
Abes grew up in Flemington, New Jersey – a small town in which the community is predominantly white. As he explained, his parents were proud of their culture, but Abes could not help but feel like an outsider.

“As a kid, I honestly felt like a white person in a Filipino body,” Abes explains.

While he initially played violin and tennis, Abes auditioned for his high school’s musical during his sophomore year and instantly fell in love with the stage.

Ever since then, he has not been able to escape the chains of the theater. Roger is his fifth role at the College through TCNJ Musical Theatre, and his third lead.

Abes, a junior at The College of New Jersey, as Roger Davis in TMT's production of "Rent." (Photo Courtesy of Julie Scesney)
Abes, a junior at The College of New Jersey, as Roger Davis in TMT’s production of “Rent.” (Photo Courtesy of Julie Scesney)

Two years ago, he was cast as Ren McCormick in the musical “Footloose.”

“In my mind I pictured this gruff and tough Caucasian male with lighter hair and different eyes,” Abes said. “That role was difficult because it was a challenge to find a compromise on what I thought Ren McCormick should be versus what I could provide to the role.”

This was not the first time Abes faced these challenges. He also recalled dealing with high school directors who used to type-cast him due to his ethnicity.

“With Roger, the role is typically played by a white male, but it is never explicitly explained in the libretto that he is Caucasian,” Abes explained. “So I get frustrated when the reverse happens and roles that were originated by Filipinos are not expected to always be played by Filipinos in future productions.”

As an example, Abes discusses Filipino actor Jose Llana, who originated the role of Chip Tolentino in the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in 2005. In subsequent productions, however, Chip has not been always been played by a Filipino man, regardless of the diversity of the casting pool.

Theater has a history of sticking to traditional casting, and when someone of a different ethnicity takes over a role, there is always national attention.

Acclaimed theatrical actress Lea Salonga, also Filipina, shot to stardom after originating the role of Vietnamese refugee Kim in the hit-musical “Miss Saigon” on both the West End and Broadway.

Playing Kim opened doors for the actress, who went on to be the first Asian actress to play the roles of Fantine and Eponine in “Les Miserable.”

Instead of being credited as another wonderful actress who played such iconic roles, Salonga has always been pegged as the “Asian actress” first. It’s a pigeonholing that Abes has experienced firsthand, and still struggles with today.

“It makes me so angry,” Abes say swhen asked about the stigma surrounding audience’s reactions to him portraying traditionally white roles. “It’s a statement birthed out of a very ethnocentric kind of idealistic mindset.”

When TCNJ Musical Theater was discussing shows for their upcoming season last year, a member proposed the musical “AIDA,” which includes a racially diverse cast. The organization as a whole is predominately Caucasian, but some members thought there was a way to do the show without addressing the race concerns usually found in a production of “AIDA.”

“The organization was discussing alternatives to have black and white cast members, and someone’s argument was that we had an Asian Ren McCormick,” Abes states. “The fact that you put that kind of preface before the role is really saying ‘I cannot be a Ren McCormick,’ I can only be an ‘Asian Ren McCormick.’”

Abes says he feels like he is being isolated from everyone else even if he plays the role with the same techniques as actors beforehand.
With the inclusion of Lewis in “Phantom” earlier this year and an all-black cast in a production of the classic Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire” gracing Broadway last spring, actors of different ethnicities have begun to take on traditional white roles in a larger way than ever before.

The inequality, however, still exists.

“If the world were a more open minded place, casting diversity should feel normal,” Abes said before adding, “that being said, because of the challenges faced, I think that it does make sense to celebrate it. People have told us over and over again that we cannot play these roles because we are people of color, but to finally be able to break down the barrier is something that deserves attention.”

Despite this, Abes knows that this is only a temporary solution to a more long-term problem. A lack of diversity in theater exists, and it does not seem to be changing anytime soon.

“We don’t live in a world where everything is normal. It would be awesome if it wasn’t a big deal,” Abes said. “But given our history, I think that it makes sense to highlight these casting choices, but hopefully we can get to a place that we don’t have to be that way or say those things.”

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